I’ve been asked a few times recently to give advice to aspiring young writers. Anyone asking me this question does so at
their peril, because I have a lot to say about commencing one’s writing career, and I will elaborate at length given the chance. And the lesson of today, younglings? Handling rejection. No doubt you’ll have seen the list going around on Facebook of the number of times Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and other mega-superstars of literature were rejected before achieving mega-superstardom, but I think that it never hurts to hear the message repeated from someone a little closer (OK, a lot closer) to the ground.
The topic came up in one of my crit groups, when we found ourselves engaging in a somewhat counter-productive competition to see who had amassed the most rejections for a single story before ultimately placing it for publication. I think I won with 25.
Not all rejection letters are created equal. Most are form rejections – a variation on “thanks, but no thanks”. Some rejections are merely implied; for whatever reason, the publication to which you’ve submitted never responds. Some – arguably, the most frustrating type of rejection of all – are the almost-made-it type e.g.“I really liked it, but I liked some other stories even more, and I couldn’t fit them all in.” Or, “I really liked it, but it didn’t quite fit with the theme I was looking for.”
Some rejection letters will forever stick in my head. One was a line edit of the entire piece, mostly highlighting the editor’s aversion to hyphens and concluding with “I wouldn’t buy it anyway, because it has a swear word in it.” One rejected me because I misspelled one word. I argued back that it was not a misspelling, but the difference between American English and New Zealand English (a tip to newbies – never, EVER argue with an editor over a rejection letter). They say that the best revenge is success, so I take some comfort in the fact that I’m still writing, but neither of those magazines are still in publication.
Another rejection inspired an entire blog post in which I ranted about my right to use myths and legends from my own culture in a piece of fiction. That story, “The Touch of the Taniwha”, is now slated for publication in Dagan Books’ “Fish” anthology alongside stories from Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, Cate Gardner and others.
Yes, I keep my personal rejection emails, copy-and-pasted into one very long document. And yes, I am a bit of a masochist in that respect (I used to keep the form rejections too, but that was just silly). Sometimes I even rewrite stories on the strength of the feedback in my rejections, and for that I am truly grateful to the editors. “The Oldest Profession” falls into this category – it garnered the record 25 rejections until I took on board some of the criticisms and rewrote it into a much stronger piece. Criticisms such as this – “I am, I confess, a bit of a hard sell on prostitute stories, but this one nearly won me over with its gritty, tired voice and its lack of romanticization through the middle. In the end, though, the story just didn’t resonate as strongly as I would have liked.”
“Drive, She Said” was rejected 12 times before getting accepted by Lovecraft E-zine, and only two of those rejections were personal (“There is a lot to like here–the voice feels fresh, and the characters are intriguing. But…”). It is now on the Horror Writer Association’s Bram Stoker Award™ 2012 Reading List.
“Ghosts Can Bleed” (the story, not the collection) was rejected 6 times before its first publication, and 5 times as a reprint. I received one almost-made-it personal rejection – the editor said “The final decision is made by comparing the stories, more with an eye toward issue balance than the merits of one piece over another. Yours is a GREAT piece, and I’m very very sorry that we can’t use it.” When this happens, it counts as a Good Rejection Day.
“Baptism”, which is currently getting rave reviews in the “Horror For Good” anthology, got three rejections and two “we can’t even be bothered responding”. One of those rejection emails had this to say – “Unfortunately, it’s not quite right for us. I liked the concept and the mermaids were quite vivid, but I didn’t feel as much urgency in Tomas in the opening as I wanted, as much of a deep core yearning in him to tackle the challenge of his new post and save the mermaids’ souls.” Umm…yeah. That’s kind of the point of the whole story.
The most eloquent rejection I ever got was for “Fairy Gothic”, which went on to be published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. It went like this – “This is nice, and as far as I can tell perfectly executed for what it is. But what it is isn’t what we need, I think: it’s a bit too soft, and extremely subtle, and you have to ease into it like slipping into a bath, and I’m not sure we have that luxury given the constraints of our medium. But I wanted to acknowledge your success, and urge you to submit to us again.” I particularly liked this rejection because many editors, when faced with rejecting a good story that is a bad fit for their publication, will try to find a way to blame the story. This editor was able to say that the story was a well-formed square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
So what can fledging writers take from all of the above?
- Unless you’re a literary freak of nature, you will experience rejection. Even if you go straight down the self-publishing route and bypass the submissions process altogether, you will still experience rejection in the form of negative reviews. You can see a bad review or a rejection email as a soul-crushing defeat, or you can view it as a badge of honour; proof that you are a real writer and not just someone tooling around on a laptop for his or her own amusement.
- Square pegs. Round holes. Sometimes it’s as simple as that. Take care to research your markets and find out as much as possible what sort of stuff your prospective editor prefers, and you’ll reduce the number of this kind of rejection.
- Personal taste accounts for a lot, too. One person’s “love it” is another person’s “hate it”. I’ve received countless rejections because an editor had a bias against certain subjects – “[XYZ] didn’t like it. To him, it was just “one more” doll house horror story, and apparently, he’s read a ton of them.” I know what it’s like, because I read slush for Dark Moon Digest, and there are certain plots or themes that will turn me off a story almost every time (lucky for Dark Moon Digest hopefuls, your submission will be read by at least two other people, so personal bias is unlikely to account for a rejection there).
- Or maybe that editor was right, and maybe your story does have a fatal flaw. You’re allowed to rewrite it and send it out again.